INTRODUCTION: Today we are starting a short series on Paul’s letter to Philemon. We’ll use a different perspective each day to examine the issues at stake in this short epistle.
Paul’s job as the first missionary was to spread the gospel and equip local leaders to build the church on sound theology. But he also had to navigate a wide variety of regional laws, politics, and culture. Keep in mind, Paul worked in a society built on military strength and the rule of law, supported by an economy of 60 million slaves. Furthermore, Greco-Roman household codes gave total authority within homes to patriarchs. Women, children, and slaves were subservient to the household patriarch, and any challenges to this cultural arrangement would have been revolutionary. In today’s passage, we see what happens when Paul befriends a runaway slave who just so happens to be the property of a local church leader.
- When has your view of someone needed to change to accommodate a new reality?
READ THE WORD: Philemon (ESV)
1:1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
- To whom was Paul writing and what was the nature of their relationship (vss. 1-7)?
- What was Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus (vs. 16)? How did Paul describe his own relationship with Onesimus (vss. 10-12)?
- What was the central command Paul gave to Philemon in verses 15-18? What change in status would this result in for Onesimus?
- Who is Jesus challenging you to see and treat as a beloved brother or sister in Christ? What is required of you to see this person differently?
RESPOND TO GOD
Paul wasn’t trying to change the massive institution of slavery in Rome by helping one runaway slave escape his master; rather, he demonstrated how Jesus can transform every person and change every relationship despite cultural standards. For Paul to ask Philemon to recognize Onesimus as something other than a slave was a radical move motivated by a new understanding of people and relationships that came with faith in Jesus. He gently guided Philemon on how to accept Onesimus, but ultimately he put the power in the hands of the church to act like the church. Paul empowered the body to live in light of the gospel. Today, that empowerment and responsibility is still upon us.
- Ask God to show you where cultural norms or expectations are limiting the way you engage with others. Ask him to transform those relationships and to give you eyes to see as he sees.